I often get an empty stare when I talk to new photographers about white balance, so I thought, this short blog post might be helpful.
Every lighting situation produces different colours, and even the sun light changes in colour temperature throughout the day, from warmer tones in the morning and evening, to a cooler / bluer tone middays. In automatic mode, nearly all cameras are looking for a neutral tone, 18% grey to be exact, and the rendition of all other colours is based relative to this neutral area. The modern sensors are pretty amazing at guessing, however often the scene doesn’t provite such a neutral colour, and our cameras need a bit of good old human input. This becomes especially important when working in mixed light, if you deal with bright mid-day sunlight in the background while your subject is in the shade as example, and even more so if you work with flashes or in a studio.
Most camera allow you to set the white balance manually. The symbols for these settings differ depending on the camera manufacturer, however a short visit to your user manual should be easy enough. The usual settings are…
“Tungsten” – your standard light bulb, mainly used for shooting indoors. Since such light is quite warm, setting your camera to Tungsten will cool down the colours in your photos, to get closer to a neutral tone.
“Fluorescent” – has generally a “cooler” tone, and this setting will warm up the overall colours in your shot. I am careful with this setting, since todays fluorescent lights come in different colour temperature ranges, many are actually “daylight balanced”.
“Daylight” – standard mid-day (over head) sun.
“Cloudy” – produces slightly warmer colours than “daylight” and is a good general setting for all out-door shoots, if you like a bit of warmth to your image. This is the setting I use whenever I pick up my camera for a location lifestyle shoot, with the exception of productions where accurate colours are required.
“Flash” – warms up your images quite a bit, since most on-camera flashes produce a cooler, bluer tone. Be careful with this setting with larger strobes, most of them are daylight balanced.
To get a better understanding of where these Pre-Sets fit in, here’s a little overview with actual figures:
1000-2000 K – Candle light
2500-3500 K – Tungsten
3000-4000 K – Morning/Evening sun
4000-5000 K – Fluorescent Lamps
5000-5500 K – Electronic Flash
5000-6500 K – Clear midday sun
6500-8000 K – Light to medium overcast sky
9000-10000 K – Shade or strong overcast sky
How to take the guess work out of it?
There are many methods to set the correct white balance. Assuming that we capture all of our images in raw format (which we should for many reasons anyway), we can adjust the white balance in post. To do so accurately, we photograph a “grey card” (or any similar product) as reference in whatever lighting situation we are, which then allows us to select this area as “neutral” in programs like Apple Aperture or Adobe Lightroom. It’s quick and easy to then apply these settings to all of our images from the shoot.
While the “do it in post” method works great, there are good reasons to set the right white balance in camera already. A shift in colour temperature can have quite an impact on the relationship of different colours and their perceived contrast values. When judging a scene on the (already limited) screen on the back of the camera, seeing accurate colours can help quite a bit. This is even more important when working with people, who will see the result on your screen as well.
Another good reason to get it “right” in camera is video. Most new cameras produce amazing video footage, however there is no “raw” format in DSLR video, and correction of colours in post – while possible to a certain point – can quickly introduce nasty artefacts.
There are many products on the market, which will help you produce outstanding colours. I personally use the ExpoDisc from ExpoImaging www.expoimaging.com) for in-camera white balance, and the Xrite ColorChecker Passport (www.xrite.com) for measured post production.